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Introducing the Class of 2020: Will Bjarnar, with advice from New York Times’ John Branch

The National Press Club Journalism Institute is spotlighting the next generation of journalists, students graduating from college or Master’s programs this spring into a challenging job market, in hopes they’ll meet future bosses and colleagues here, who will reach out and support them in building journalism’s future together. 

CBS News Interns headshots 2019 , Photo: Michele Crowe/CBS

Name: Will Bjarnar

School: Marist College

Location: Poughkeepsie, New York

Editor-in-Chief: Center Field 

Internships: CBS News, ESPN Radio

What have you learned from your involvement with student media on your campus?

Bjarnar: I’m going to be extremely original and give my honest and unique answer to everything. I’ve completely changed as a writer and editor because of my education at Marist, which extended directly into my work with student media. Whether it was as a writer/editor for Center Field (our sports communication department’s online publication), or with the Marist Circle (our school paper), I’ve learned what it is to truly report, research, structure professional style writing, edit others work, what have you. And without it, I’d feel far less confident entering a field that is all about being both meticulous and creative while never letting one suppress the other. I love the relationship between the two, and I discovered/learned it by doing, by practicing, by *working.* I owe that to the publications I have been lucky enough to “work for.”

What have you learned from your internship experience(s)?

Bjarnar: My internship experiences helped me discover two principal things: what else I have the ability to do outside of writing and editing, and the path that I don’t necessarily want to go down in the long term. Now, does that mean that I have no interest in TV or radio production? Absolutely not. Because I’m someone who recognizes the necessity for flexibility in this field, as well as how crucial it truly is to be able to do multiple things and have a broad skillset. But I’ve always wanted to write. It’s a dream, sure, but it’s one that I want to chase and achieve and do as a career. With that said, though, my internships at ESPN Radio and CBS News were incredible, both experiences that I’ll cherish with knowledge that I’ll access for the rest of my life, whether it’s at a networking event or at a press conference. And they truly opened my eyes to a world beyond the keyboard.

What’s been your best moment in journalism?

Bjarnar: It involved a piece that didn’t go anywhere but on ny personal blog/portfolio. I’m a humongous fan of the TV show “Survivor.” Huge. I own buffs, I’ve seen every season twice, I spend hours weekly reading behind the scenes content, etc. In the fall of my junior year, I thought it would be a cool idea to write an oral history of one of the seasons of the show, Caramoan: Fans vs. Favorites, since it was one of my favorite seasons and it involved so many interesting characters. 

I had never written anything like this before; I had interviewed people, but never someone “famous” (now, not all “Survivor” players are famous, but I’d never assume they’d respond to my interview requests). Well, four did, I had great conversations with each of them, and they really fortified the piece and my direction with it. While that doesn’t seem like a lot for an oral history — and it’s not; I would’ve loved to have 20 people respond — it was a big moment for me. My best moment. It proved to me that sometimes you just have to reach out and ask. It proved to me that in order to achieve what you want to, you need to step outside of your comfort zone. 

That was a giant step for me because it helped me to become a better journalist by becoming a more comfortable, adaptable one. You can’t assume people won’t answer just because you’re a kid. You have to send an email, make a phone call, pitch your crazy idea as something important and interesting, the way that you see it. People respond to that. You’d be surprised at how many people are interested in chatting with you about something they love. I got the winner of the season to answer for crying out loud. And we talked for three hours! It was a thrill; writing it was a thrill, reporting on it was a thrill. It made me a better writer and interviewer. I’ll always be thankful for it.

What’s the wackiest story you’ve worked on? 

Bjarnar: So I looked up the definition of wacky in order to answer this question as accurately as possible. If you’re interested, it reads: “funny or amusing in a slightly odd or peculiar way.” SO, I’ll point out the wackiest, aka most peculiar story I’ve ever worked on. 

I was asked by my arts and culture editor for the school paper to recommend a film from 2019, but not just one that I liked. He wanted me to contribute to a piece (along with two other writers) that recommended important films for Marist students, specifically, to see. The other two writers — being editors as well and having incepted the idea before involving me — nabbed films that focused on societal hierarchy, capitalism, gentrification, and other issues of a classist variety. 

They chose “Parasite,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” and “Jojo Rabbit,” all astute selections that had powerful messages. I decided, perhaps, to take a different approach: I highlighted “The Lighthouse,” a great film about the worst roommate someone could ever have. This was a challenge, a weird film to sell to a college audience. It’s not the kind of film a typical college kid might go see on a weekend. It’s not “Avengers: Endgame” or “Joker.” It’s a small, odd, uncomfortable film that’s in black and white, is edited to seem grainier, darker, and creepier than anything I’ve ever seen. It’s also, and principally, about how being stuck inside tight quarters with the same irritating individual could make any man go insane. 

Selling this to a college audience is an interesting, WACKY task; I tried to do so by taking the roommate approach. Has your roommate ever experienced extreme flatulence, therefore making your experience in that room more difficult to tolerate? Has he or she ever discouraged you from looking into an enchanting light atop a lighthouse? It was odd to write about for the typical college student/moviegoer to understand or even be at all interested. But sometimes your wackiest assignments become your favorite. It most certainly was wacky, but it was a delight.

What do you want to accomplish in your journalism career?

Bjarnar: More than anything, I want to be a writer that people refer to as a storyteller, and one of the best storytellers there is in journalism. One of the reasons I’m most interested in feature writing and column writing is because the best stories can be told in those forms, at least in my opinion. I find that I respond the most, or at least in the most visceral fashion, when a story can both capture my attention and evoke emotion. If I can laugh, cry, fear, or rejoice while reading your story, it’s automatically more effective in my eyes. It hits me harder. I enjoy my experience reading it more. 

That’s why I think books like “Friday Night Lights” and “Heaven is a Playground” are some of the most effective pieces of sports journalism ever written. As immersive and comprehensive as they are, they’re equally visceral and effective in terms of capturing a reader’s attention and eliciting emotion. I want to be the kind of writer that achieves that. And I’d love to do so by working for a reputable and esteemed publication, a la the New Yorker or The Ringer.

Additionally, I want to become a book author. I mentioned two books above. Here, I’ll further mention “Among the Thugs,” “Boom Town,” and “Moneyball.” The thing that all those books have in common? The reporting and storytelling is unmatched. It’s so masterful that it feels unobtainable as an aspiring writer, but I long to find a story/topic in which I can embed myself in a culture. Learning its tendencies, whether it’s a city or an organization or a subculture within those. The reason I respond so well to those books is because I itch to emulate those practices in my own career.

If you could meet any journalist and ask for her/his advice, who would it be and why?

Bjarnar: John Branch is the first that comes to mind. He falls beautifully in the category of being a storyteller whose reporting practices are so evidently refined and mastered that you can both feel and not feel on the page. That’s a complicated thought to have, but it’s true. You can tell he’s done his due diligence as a reporter first and foremost, and then has the pure ability to put it on paper eloquently and brilliantly. I’d ask him, in particular, on his process in finding such stories. The best piece of journalism ever written, for my money, is Branch’s “Snow Fall.” How did he find that? How did he approach it? At what point did he know how to take information and flip it into a story that people would reference in a class/ marvel at for years to come? Was there ever a realization of that kind? He’s a fascinating person and a brilliant writer, one who I’ve admired for years. I’d want to pick that brain.

Also: Bill Simmons. He’s a trailblazer in his own right, blurring the lines between fandom and journalism like no one ever has and no one else ever could without emulating his work. I’d love to schedule a lunch with Branch and a dinner with Simmons. Wouldn’t that be a day?

John Branch responds: Will, Snow Fall began just like every other story begins — a news nugget, a passing mention. An astute editor mentioned the subject of avalanches to me. It felt like a ripe topic, this force that kills dozens of Americans each year, including several top skiers that season, but goes largely unnoticed because they rarely kill more than one or two at a time. 

Like every story, reporting began with research and phone calls. I soon focused on the Tunnel Creek avalanche, because there were witnesses and survivors. One call led to another and another — as I like to say, journalists merely pick up stones and look under them. It was months before we involved our graphics team, and even then I couldn’t envision what Snow Fall would become. I just wanted to tell a story. 

The lesson? It applies to every story, but also every journalism career: Go with an open mind, be insatiably curious, follow your gut, find truth. And don’t think you know where things will end up, because none of us do. That’s why we report. That’s why we live. 

What do you want potential employers to know about you?

Bjarnar: That I promise to bring a passion and excitement into the office every single day. That’s a cheesy answer; I worry that my answers have been cheesy. But it’s true! I care so much about the things I immerse myself in. To do that every day for a living? It’d be a dream. And I dream of doing it around others with similar mindsets and feelings on this craft. 

And this one is general, but I want them to know that I’m open. I love sports and I love culture, but I interned at an outlet that focused on politics, policy, and world issues. Whatever I’m asked to do, I’ll do it to the highest level.

When you aren’t practicing journalism, how do you spend your time?

Bjarnar: Things have changed a lot with the current conditions in our climate; thanks COVID-19. However, I would typically: read books and articles, watch films, watch sports film/old game broadcasts, play basketball, run, drink coffee, eat jelly beans, lay with my cat, cook a variety of pasta dishes, and more.

One thing that I’ve taken a liking to in the last year is editing compilations and montages of my favorite films from any given year. I pair the sequences with music from films that year and construct a supercut, dedicating hours to Adobe Audition. It’s fun, completing something like that.

If you’re a senior studying journalism, or know one, we’re accepting information here for students to feature in the future. If you’re a supporter, you can contribute here to scholarships for journalism students.